Better or worse? Previewing Georgia's offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC team’s offense continues with Georgia. Coming Wednesday: Kentucky.
Expectations are sometimes hard to live up to in sports. It’s enough to hear the media chatter as to how things should go for your program, but in the social media age, the fans’ voices often are the loudest.
As someone assigned to cover Georgia football, I’m tasked with delivering my own expectations. And I try to steer away from hyperbole and lay down honest, fair assessments of what I see, both positive and negative.
But it’s extremely hard to not look at the Bulldogs’ offensive roster and think that this group isn’t good enough to lead the team to a College Football Playoff in 2021. And with Kirby Smart entering his 6th season at his alma mater, he’ll have expectations of his own to face as he looks to end the Dawgs’ long championship drought.
Now, Georgia’s offense wasn’t awful last year as it finished 21st in SP+ rankings, but that boost was partially due to JT Daniels and what he did down the stretch. More on him later.
So how do things measure up in the passing game, rushing game, and on special teams? Let’s take a look:
Passing offense: Better
Georgia’s passing offense would have already been better even without the addition of former LSU tight end Arik Gilbert. But after losing out to Ed Orgeron on the recruiting trail for the services of the Atlanta-area product over a year and a half ago, Kirby Smart has added Gilbert via the transfer portal (following a brief commitment, then decommitment, to Florida) to an already-stacked passing offense helmed by JT Daniels.
Gilbert, an SEC All-Freshman pick — who hauled in 35 catches for 368 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2020 — will switch to wide receiver. Why? The Dawgs already are set at tight end. (He’s also had a strong mentor and trainer in Terrence Edwards, whose track record between the hedges speaks for itself.)
It’s not as if Georgia was hurting at the wide receiver slot, though, even with George Pickens being possibly lost for the season to an ACL injury and Demetris Robertson in the transfer portal.
Breakout star Kearis Jackson is back, who Connor O’Gara proclaimed as possibly the Dawgs’ most valuable receiver — and that was before the Pickens injury. Jackson will join a cast that features Gilbert, rising sophomore Jermaine Burton and big (literally) tight end target Darnell Washington, who I’ve long marked as a player in line for a huge 2021 campaign. Ever-versatile running back James Cook will be a constant factor in the pass-catching game, while Dominick Blaylock and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint return following injuries. Speedster Arian Smith was banged up last season and suffered a wrist injury during spring camp but will be another piece to the puzzle if healthy.
And don’t forget Justin Robinson, a promising 4-star recruit that redshirted last year, or Adonai Mitchell, who stole the show on G-Day.
Oh, and Daniels gets to throw to those guys for an entire season, not just for 4 games.
I’d argue that even if Daniels does nothing but maintain the form he had during his brief spell as the Dawgs’ starter, this team will be fine. But it’s all about development: There were a few wrinkles that presented themselves that he’ll need to work on with Todd Monken to continue to refine his game.
Give Daniels a clean pocket to work with, keep him upright, and he’ll carry this team. Smart wasn’t happy with his offensive line’s pass protection after the spring game, but the good news is that there’s plenty of time to patch things up before the season begins.
And let’s be honest: We’re all wanting to see more of this from Darnell Washington in 2021.
Rushing offense: Better
Georgia’s running back room is probably as deep as any in the conference.
It’s probably not going to be on the level of a Nick Chubb-Sony Michel tandem, but this group will more than hold its own. Zamir White racked up 11 touchdowns last year and in a normal season would have crested the 1,000-yard mark. He’ll have plenty of help in Cook, Kenny McIntosh and a pair of sophomores in Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton that impressed in their respective first years in Athens in 2020.
Having this part of the offense taken care of certainly opens things up through the air and adds just another dimension to a team that shouldn’t struggle to put up yards, or points, in 2021.
Kicking game: Better
Jack Podlesny returns. He etched himself in Bulldogs lore with his game-winning field goal against Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl in January. It wasn’t a bad year overall for Rodrigo Blankenship’s successor, who will be that much more reliable in 2021.
As far as the return game is concerned, the Bulldogs haven’t taken a kickoff to the house since Terry Godwin did it in 2016; its last punt return for a touchdown was in 2018 courtesy of Mecole Hardman. Don’t bet against Kearis Jackson, who was a treat to watch in the return game last year, doing either.
At absolute worst, if you’re a Bulldogs fan, go ahead and make your arrangements to head to Atlanta on Dec. 4 because there’s little chance this team is missing out on winning the SEC East again.
That’s how good this offense can be.
With a quarterback that’s receiving some Heisman love in the press, an incredibly sturdy wide receiver corps that picked up a huge boost with the addition of Arik Gilbert, and one of the deepest running back rooms in the country, scoring won’t be an issue at all.
As mentioned, there are a few pass protection items that need to be fixed, and a few parts of Daniels’ game that need some refining. But if there’s an offense that just might be the one that lifts Georgia to new heights, it could be this one.